September and spring is emerging in the southern hemisphere. And my garden!
I have just found out what Crocosmia means! Small, brightly coloured funnel-shaped blooms, sword-shaped foliage, grown from bulbs similar to the Iris family. Grouped together they make ideal, butterfly-friendly floral displays. Such a variety of colours and shapes to gladden the heart of any artistic gardener.
On Gardenia Creating Gardens website, companion planting with Crocosmia is reminiscent of English cottage gardens (see below) although they are natives of South Africa. I haven’t planted Crocosmia, I should, they tolerate Brisbane’s subtropical climate, humidity, heat and current drought-like conditions.
Since Queensland won’t be getting tropical rainfall for a couple of months yet, I will satisfy myself with what I can photograph in my own meagre garden; and add excerpts from some famous poems about springtime.
For the last 20 years my lawn have been maintained by a variety of lawn mower men. You might say I’m an expert in using and losing lawn mower men. Some were franchised, many were independent, two were uni students, and my current bloke is the son of a former lawn mowing man. They all have one thing in common, they have stories to tell. From tyre-like snakes to the ubiquitous naked housewife, they would arrive from their last job, either wide-eyed or totally unmoved at what people do or generally don’t do in their gardens.
An interesting fact, little documented, is that lawn mowing men are commonly escaping the grind of an intense and soul-destroying job. They like the fresh air, the physical aspect, their own timetable and the odd cash in hand. I have heard about their families, their weekend activities and their apologies for why they have to charge me more for trimming the edges. I’ve given up querying those five minute extras. Some have used a whipper-snipper over the whole garden and one modern man used a ride-on mower. The noise and the results were equally bad but they didn’t come back. Which is a blessed relief. You can read about my suburban garden in Garden Notes.
In the beginning I used to offer these men a cold drink on a hot day but increasingly I have noticed they bring their own beverages. Once I offered a craggy old fellow a yoghurt ice-cream on a stick, thinking it would be cooling, but he refused telling me he didn’t like that sort of stuff. The stories are real but I have used pseudonyms throughout so let’s call him Doug. Doug had experienced “that sort of stuff” before. Without yoghurt but involving a Naked Lady.
Doug was mowing the front lawn when he glanced up and saw the homeowner standing naked in the front window. She was unperturbed but he was flustered. At the end of his job, Doug went to the door and it was flung open before he could knock. The now scantily clad homeowner ushered him inside, offered him coffee, sat close on the sofa and introduced him to her girlfriend. Apparently they wanted a baby together and he seemed the perfect candidate. Doug was a happily married grandfather and “wouldn’t have a bar of it”. In other words, the answer was “no”.
The Egg Basket was one of Doug’s more humorous stories. Doug was mowing the back lawn of a regular customer, being careful not to scare the free range hens, when he came across fresh laid eggs. He picked them up and placed them out of harm’s way in the peg basket swinging on the clothes line. Next visit, the homeowner told Doug “the funniest thing had happened” and his “chooks must be acrobats” because they laid their eggs in the peg basket. Doug laughed and explained what he had done. The homeowner was relieved since he couldn’t understand how the hens had balanced.
Lawn mowing men are wizards with a mower but rarely are they trained horticulturists, arborists or landscapers. The same goes for a sub-branch called treeloppers but that’s another story. Some mower men are billed as gardeners but often become vague about availability when you ask if they can weed the back garden. Or even more vague when you ask if they have time to remove a pile of garden waste. Their astute move with garden waste is to tote-up how many other householders want rubbish removed, coordinate the same day collection, slug each of us the disposal fee and do a one-stop drop at the council tip.
One thing I have noticed (apologies, I have yet to see a female mower person) is that, to a man, they have their mobile phones in their top left pocket, button undone ready to take calls. They don’t write these calls down so, inevitably, at some point they have to ring the caller back to confirm appointment details. The good ones leave a business card in my letterbox with the next mowing day and the more lax ones fade away.
On the subject of workwear, I have observed that lawn mower men do not go in for burdensome things like high visibility vests or safety glasses. On the plus side, they do wear working boots with heavy khaki socks which match their heavy khaki shirts. Accessories include cheap sunglasses and, depending on the age of the wearer, a sweaty cap or straw-weave hat. Protective gloves rarely make an appearance and I can only put that down to the subtropical heat.
Wally certainly needed all the help he could get. He was always keen to lend a helping hand (even building our budgie aviary) but he had an obsession for removing wasps and spiders. We told him that the big spider over our driveway was our pet and he was to leave it alone. But Wally took a dislike to a wasps nest and attacked it until he was chased around and around the garden, flyspray can in hand. I was on the side of the wasps. And Wally didn’t know it but I had seen him surreptitiously snipping bits off my conifer tree because it got in his way.
Once Wally told me about a customer who came outside complaining because he was using a leaf blower instead of a broom. He also told me of clothes left hanging on drying lines for months, barbecue crockery left out for weeks and large rocks abandoned in strange places. Regarding rocks, Wally had flicked up stones which had broken windows. The best way to identify a novice lawn mower man like Wally is to watch his attention to detail. Does he bring in your empty wheelie bin? Does he shut the gate? Does he make sure nothing has been missed, e.g. palm fronds on the path? If the answers are “no” then you can assume he is experienced; the old hand creating a tsunami of leaves in the far corner of your yard.
Another sign of the more experienced lawn mowing man is the Second Job. Usually this is unrelated, like the chap who hinted that my balcony railing looked unsafe and gave me the number of his carpentry business. Go with your instincts. In this instance, I should have taken note because a year later the carpenter who subsequently did the job was pretty slap-dash and cost me money. On the subject of money, let me tell you about Enrico.
Enrico’s customers are a mixed bag when it comes to paying the bill. Those who live in big houses with big cars take months to pay. There are customers who pay him online and he’s never met them. One customer paid him with lots and lots of coins, and another disappeared owing money. Sounds like an average business day to me. Enrico has three pet peeves. First, the bossy client who dictates how they want the job done then stands with hands on hips to watch. The second is chatty old ladies/men who want to follow him around. And third, the classic Neighbour Across The Street who asks for his business card then angles for a “good” deal.
I think of young Johnno as more of a wildlife ranger. He always had a tale to tell about an animal encounter, from guinea pig wrangling to accidentally letting dogs out, to scaring a goat. One day he was requested to do a garden tidy for a couple who had taken ill. He recommenced where they had left off and scooped up a large pile of leaves and twigs. It wasn’t until he had disposed of the bundle in his Ute trailer that he realised it was full of black fuzzy caterpillars. And they were on his clothes. He did a war dance and hosed himself down but still came up in a rash wherever they had crawled, mainly down his neckline.
Johnno by far had the biggest snake encounters, from a python asleep in a veggie patch to a green tree snake in my begonia hanging basket. One morning he saw a big brown snake sunning on our driveway and he took a spade to it. I was horrified, first because he wanted to kill it but second, because he sent it under the fence into the children’s play area. It was never found.
I believe a lawn mower man does not appreciate the pressure he puts the lawn mowee under. We have to lock up the dog, do a poop patrol, clear away any washing and raise the Hills Hoist, pick up toys, cover the budgies (in case of those flying rocks) remove fallen branches and make sure the area is free of trip-and-fall hazards. It is imperative that I place my herbs and tender potted plants in a safe place and have learned from bitter experience to build a fortress around new shrubs. My prize pomegranate was lopped off at the base and has taken years to reassert itself.
In conclusion, I would say that most of the lawn mower men I’ve employed seemed happy with their work. It’s an early start and early knock-off, and their weekends are free. They seem fit and healthy, none I’ve known have ever set foot in a gym. Of course, sunstroke taught them to drink plenty of water. I am sure I have contributed to their holiday funds in a positive way and they, in turn, have allowed me to walk across my lawn without using a machete.
Grey clouds raced across the sky and cold wind ruffled Paul’s hair.
He gazed with sadness at Grandpa’s new tree.
It looked sick.
Its leaves were brown and crispy and some had fallen on the grass.
Paul grabbed the garden hose and watered the earth around the tree.
A large puddle circled the trunk but nothing happened.
Paul thought it needed some food. “What do trees eat?” he asked the sky.
In the garden shed, Paul foraged among lots of interesting containers.
On the bench he saw Grandpa’s half eaten sandwich and took it to the tree. Crunch! He picked up the dog’s smelly bone and gave that to the tree. Cackle! The hens followed a trail of grain as it trickled along behind him.
Paul was sure the cat wouldn’t miss her bowl of fish-flavoured treats.
From the kitchen, vegetable scraps joined a plate of leftover breakfast bits.
Paul stuffed an apple and a banana on top and ran back to the tree. Icky! He pulled a fuzzy lollipop out of his pocket and tossed it on the pile. Gloop! He found a jar of honey and poured that around the base. Woof, cluck, meow, buzz! Everyone enjoyed the food except the tree.
“You still don’t look right,” said Paul.
A leaf fluttered down, then another and another until the branches were bare.
Paul felt a tiny ache inside.
He walked slowly into the house – then thought of an idea!
With his coloured pencils and sheets of paper he drew and drew and drew.
His scissors cut and cut and cut until he had a handful of leafy shapes.
It was a big job threading these leaves on to the branches.
He stood on tip-toe and just reached the highest twigs.
Paul knew it wouldn’t fool Grandpa, but he did want to make him smile.
He tugged Grandpa by the hand, outside and all the way to the tree.
“What’s this?” said Grandpa. “A Christmas tree?”
Paul shuffled uncomfortably. “No.”
“A tree eating all our food?” said Grandpa as his boots squelched in honey.
Paul hung his head. “Grandpa, your tree is sick. I tried to make it better.”
Grandpa’s eyes twinkled.
“You did a great job, Paul. The leaves look better than ever.”
Paul’s stomach did a happy flip.
Grandpa patted his shoulder.
“This tree will lose its leaves for winter and will grow new ones in the spring.”
Paul was relieved. “You mean it’s just taking a nap?”
Laughter rumbled out of Grandpa. “Exactly.”
Grandpa explained how the ground and the sun and the rain helped it grow.
Paul looked up at Grandpa.
“When it grows taller next year, I’ll need help with the paper leaves.”
Grandpa gave Paul a big, warm handshake.
At that moment Paul was surprised to see him wink.
“Don’t forget,” said Grandpa, “next year you’ll be taller too.”
Dear Diary, it’s a calm, warm July day, almost like an early Spring, but there are no butterflies or buzzing insects. The crows call to each other across the back garden and noisy miners flit back and forth like feathered investigators on an important assignment. The children in the house behind my suburban block are jumping on a netted trampoline and soon there will be a cry and a parent will take them off. The towels have been on the Hills Hoist clothes line for two days. A dried-out agapanthus head is sticking straight up out of the perennial foliage, a reminder that I am not a conscientious gardener.
So saying, in a green square pot I have grown a very tall tomato plant with fat green tomatoes (above) emerging every day. The old mandarin tree has a yearly crop of pale orange-coloured mandarins, and my rosella plants are flowering (above) while the spring onions and ginger roots carry on regardless. There are non-native plants like a small pomegranate, poinsettia bright red and blooming (above) and our huge native gum tree towers over all of us; blossom for the parrots and fruit bats. Special mention goes to our agave family. These Mexican beauties (above) love our subtropical climate and we’ve given away more young plants than I can remember.
Of course, there’s the herbs, for better or worse, always trying so hard … The trailing hoya (above) was a joy with its pink waxy flowers but recently it decided it had had enough and shrivelled up. The ancient mulberry tree went the same way, dying in the drought a few years back, followed by the peach and avocado trees. The coffee bean tree (above) survives anything. We live on a sloping hill with poor soil which is interesting because many years ago cows grazed on the lush hillsides around us. My father once said “All your good top soil has been washed downhill”. Not so long ago the rich alluvial earth along the creek at the bottom of our street was plundered and no doubt sold for landscaping.
When I first lived here, the suburb was casual with a leafy roughness about it which made for a relaxed, friendly vibe. Indeed, every home was owner/builder and most residents chose not to erect fences nor were there any footpaths. Trees were planted to shade homes from the fierce western afternoon sun and if you were lucky you had a ceiling fan. Ah, the 70s, a time of emerging from the past and forging ahead with little regard for past cultural or community identity but, in so doing, it created a unique city. Strangely, if not surprisingly, it has taken about 40 years for the people of Brisbane, Queensland, to appreciate our subtropical city. The past is now nostalgically and fondly remembered as the concrete is poured for yet another highrise apartment block.
If real estate developers would let us, we would return to our friendly, informal way of life instead of building cement block homes and painting them grey like every other capital city in Australia. To take my mind off the screeching of chainsaws as they hack down another leopard tree (above) I will write a little bit about our front garden.
In the front garden, and I use the term loosely, there is structure and visions of edging and all, but I have let that slip. Two tall palm trees (above) on either side of the house echo early Queensland-style seen in rural areas. Tough-as-old-boots golden cane palms dot the area while I think our camellia is a Melbourne throwback. The stocky Illawarra flame tree with its pink orchids (above) was planted to complement the purple jacaranda nextdoor (viewed from balcony). I will not describe the weeds like camphor laurel, monstera or umbrella trees always springing up between the lemon scented tea-trees and more civilised shrubs. Does anyone still grow ‘mother-in-law tongue’ and ‘cast-iron’ plants? Cast iron is an unkillable broad leafed low-growing plant and I think it was beloved of early Victorians as either a hothouse or indoor plant in brass pots on wooden stands.
In the back garden, what there is left of our lawn is covered in bindii prickles thanks to lawn mowing contractors who disperse them willy-nilly via their lawn mower tyres. You can read my screed on Lawn Mower Men. There is a shallow bird bath under the eucalyptus tree for the enjoyment of noisy miner birds. On a tiled outdoor table, I have my inherited maiden hair fern (above) in a small pretty terracotta pot. The pot was thrown and fired by a neighbour and friend over thirty-five years ago. This little fern is hardier than most!
Apart from hedging bushes of murraya, or mock orange, there is no strong scent in the garden and no ornamental plantings with fragrance except a straggly French lavender potplant. Our forebears had a bit of foresight when it came to planting leafy, sheltering greenery in an otherwise hot landscape. It’s our trees which stand out, they, and others like them, represent our suburban streetscape. Long may they tower over us!